Written by CHRISTOPHER TENNANT
Photography by SCOTT MAC DONOUGH
Napoleon was fond of saying that geography is destiny, and like all great aphorisms, sometimes it’s true. A case in point is designer Thaddeus O’Neil, who has just completed his stellar first collection of surf-inspired menswear, infused with the blue-collar-Bohemian spirit of the Long Island town where he was raised. To understand O’Neil’s circuitous route to the fashion industry it helps to take a trip out to Brookhaven Hamlet, a sleepy piece of 1950s America about an hour outside Manhattan. It has one main boulevard, no commercial center, and miles of protected wetlands connected to the sea. In addition to cops and clammers, the Hamlet’s slouchy white farmhouses and dusty dirt paths leading to rickety wooden docks have drawn a smattering of low-key lumi-naries from art and fashion over the years, most notably photographer Bruce Weber, who captured its bucolic landscapes in his early commercial work.
But where O’Neil’s fate is concerned, its key attribute is its proximity to the waves of Smith Point Beach, a ten-minute boat ride across the Great South Bay.
“The waves are one of reasons O’Neil’s father moved his family out here from Iowa in the late ‘70s, second only to the clams — Long Island Little Necks…”
The waves are one of reasons O’Neil’s father moved his family out here from Iowa in the late ‘70s, second only to the clams — Long Island Little Necks, which he harvested and sold to supplement his teaching job. A ded-icated four-season surfer, he put his son on a board as soon as he could stand.
Today, O’Neil says, East Coast surfing is having something of a “hula-hoop moment,” with everyone and their brother buying boards and heading to Montauk. But it wasn’t always so.
“Back in the early ‘80s when I was growing up, there were maybe 20 guys out there every weekend, and they all knew my dad,” says O’Neil, between sips of tequila at The Bowery Hotel. He’s wearing a tattered blue t-shirt with the neck and sleeves cut off, nautically striped sweats cropped just below the knee, and white canvas converse. And, yes, he’s pulling it off. It helps that he falls somewhere between Prince Lancelot and ‘70s Greg Allman on the longhaired stud spectrum.